Berlin / Kyiv: Germany cleared the way on Wednesday for Europe to send scores of battle tanks to Ukraine, and Washington was poised make a similar announcement - moves hailed by Kyiv as a potential turning point in the war, and condemned by Moscow as escalation.
Kyiv has been calling for months for Western main battle tanks that would give its forces greater firepower, protection and mobility to break through Russian defensive lines and potentially reclaim occupied territory.
Germany, previously the West's holdout, said it would send an initial company of 14 of its Leopard 2 tanks from its own stocks, and also approve shipments by other European countries.
The eventual aim would be to supply Ukraine with two battalions of Leopards, typically comprising three or four companies each, the first to arrive within three or four months.
"Germany will always be at the forefront when it comes to supporting Ukraine," Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the German parliament, to applause.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked Scholz by phone and said he was "sincerely grateful to the Chancellor and all our friends in Germany".
The move lifts one of the last taboos in Western support: providing weapons that have a mainly offensive rather than defensive purpose.
"So the tank coalition is formed. Everyone who doubted this could ever happen sees now: for Ukraine and partners impossible is nothing," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter.
"I call on all new partners that have Leopard 2 tanks in service to join the coalition and provide as many of them as possible." Russia's embassy in Berlin denounced Germany's "extremely dangerous decision" which, it said, "destroys the remnants of mutual trust" and could draw Germany into the war. Scholz pledged that no such thing would happen.
Others to follow
Berlin's move paves the way for pledges from other countries that field Leopards, which Germany made in the thousands and exported to allies.
Finland said it would send them, as did Poland, which has already sought Berlin's approval. Spain and the Netherlands said they were considering it, and Norway was reported to be discussing it. Britain has offered a company of 14 of its comparable Challengers and France is considering sending its Leclercs.
"At a critical moment in Russia's war, these tanks can help Ukraine defend itself, win and stand as an independent nation," said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Two sources in the United States said Washington would announce later on Wednesday that it would provide dozens of its own Abrams M1 tanks.
Moscow says supplies of modern offensive weaponry to Ukraine will only postpone what it says will be its inevitable victory.
Anatoly Antonov, Russia's ambassador in Washington, said deliveries of US battle tanks would be a "another blatant provocation".
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any US tanks sent to Ukraine would "burn like all the rest".
In the past week, Russia has ramped up its threats, including comments from Dmitry Medvedev, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, that a nuclear state facing defeat could use nuclear weapons.
Western officials who support sending the tanks have dismissed Moscow's threats, arguing that Russia is already waging war at full tilt and has been deterred from attacking NATO or using nuclear arms.
Last week, allies pledged billions of dollars' worth of military aid including hundreds of armoured fighting vehicles and troop carriers. Those are seen as more effective for attacking enemy lines when used alongside tanks.
Andriy Yermak, head of Zelenskiy's administration, described a force of what Ukraine hopes will be hundreds of Western tanks as "the real punching fist of democracy".
Withdrawal from Soledar
Ukraine sees the weapons as restoring its momentum in a war that has lately become a bloody, deadlocked slog.
Kyiv acknowledged on Wednesday that its forces had withdrawn from Soledar, a small salt-mining town in the east that Russia had claimed to capture more than a week ago, its biggest gain for more than half a year.
The town is close to Bakhmut, a larger city that has been the focus of an intense Russian assault for weeks.
The Russian-installed governor of Ukraine's Donetsk region said units of Russia's Wagner contract militia were now moving forward inside Bakhmut, with fighting on the outskirts and in neighbourhoods recently held by Ukraine.
Reuters could not verify the situation there.
Why does Ukraine want the Leopard 2?
One advantage of the Leopard 2 tank is that, as well as being one of the best tanks in the West’s arsenal, it is also one of the most widely used.
With some 20 nations operating the Leopard 2, several nations could each chip in a small portion of their tanks to support Ukraine. Operating a large number of one model would make it easier for Ukraine to train crew and manage maintenance.
More than 3,500 Leopard 2 tanks have been built since production began in 1978.
The tank, produced jointly by German firms Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall, weighs more than 60 tonnes, has a 120 mm smooth bore gun and can hit targets at a distance of up to five km (3.1 miles).
Nations operating the Leopard include Canada, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Turkey.
How many Leopard 2 tanks are available?
Although the Leopard 2 tank is widely used, tanks and other heavy weapons are in scarce supply in most of the West because many countries drastically reduced the size of their militaries after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Germany has about 350 Leopard 2 tanks today, compared to some 4,000 battle main tanks at the height of the Cold War, according to German military expert Carl Schulze.
At the same time, it is all but impossible to buy a large amount of Leopard 2 tanks quickly.
Germany’s defence industry is banned by law from producing them for stock-keeping. Typically, countries ordering new tanks need to be prepared to wait two to three years for delivery.
Even if production were ramped up, experts say it could take at least two years for the first new tanks to leave the factory.
What alternative tanks are there?
The United States operates thousands of M1 Abrams tanks built by General Dynamics and is poised to send dozens to Ukraine in a reversal of its previous policy, US officials say.
But the M1 Abrams are seen as unsuitable for Ukraine as they are driven by gas turbine engines with high fuel consumption that would create a challenge for Ukraine to keep them supplied even though they can also run on diesel.
The Leopard 2 runs on a more economical engine that burns diesel, which is also easier to obtain than kerosene.
The British government announced in January it would send a squadron, or 14, of its Challenger 2 battle tanks. However, unlike the Leopard 2, it is not widely used, which limits how many can be made available for Ukraine.
In addition, unlike the M1 Abrams and the Leopard 2 which both have a 120 mm smooth bore gun, the Challenger 2 has a rifled gun with different ammunition requirements, restricting interoperability.
France has said it was considering sending its Leclerc tank, which has a 120 mm smooth bore gun, saying all options are on the table. But it has also said French overseas missions limited the number it had available to send and has said the tank’s heavy-maintenance demands meant it was not ideal for Ukraine.